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Language Can Reveal the Invisible

0BTND51H5RIpbxDg0RozdrB_xv8px0v1RFuh7A1v_fBKAQAA6wAAAEpQ_260x196Can’t you find your ring or keys on your messy desk? Try out an amazing magic spell—speaking out the name of the item.

A recent research by Gary Lupyan, a cognitive scientist and psychology professor from University of Wisconsin-Madison, is published in this month’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), pointing out that language can influence the basic visual information processing.

“Words play a powerful role in what we see, including basic process like detecting objects.” Lupyan introduced that he and Emily J. Ward, a graduate student in Yale University, applied a technique called continuous flash suppression (CFS) to investigate how deeply words could influence perception. “What we see is not only dependent on the light into our eyes, it is also affected by other information sources, such as what we expect to see, what our current target is, etc.” Lupyan said.


Figure 1. In the experiments, each person was shown with a picture of a certain object in one eye, while their other eye saw a series of flashing “squiggly” lines. The continuous flashing lines suppressed the input from the other eye and hence the subjects could not see the pattern of objects. (A) Process of visual stimulation producing; (B) Basic procedure of the first two experiments. Image source: Lupyan G., Ward E. J. (2013). Language can boost otherwise unseen objects into visual awareness. PNAS.

By analyzing the subject’s perception for the shown objects in terms of hit rate, detection sensitivity and reaction time, researchers noted that the subjects ‘perception ability would be influenced by different hint words given. Using zebra pattern as an example, the subjects who were given the hint word “zebra” could perceive the zebra pattern in significantly higher hit rate and shorter reaction time, comparing with those who were not provided with any hint words. On the contrary, hearing an unmatched word could actually hurt the subjects’ opportunities of seeing an object. Lupyan said: “If language affects performance on a test similar to this study, it indicates that language must have really deep influence on our visual system.”

In addition to objects’ names, information associated with objects’ shapes could also affect the visual awareness of the subjects. In the following experiments, researchers designed 11 gradation patterns from square to circle and tested the subjects. The results revealed that hint “circle” could help the subjects better notice the pattern close to circle pattern, while hint “square” could help them find patterns close to square more easily (Figure 2). “Language’s promotion on perception depends on the relevancy between words and objects.” Lupyan pointed out that although these patterns are not typical square or circle, they both possess features of square and circle, and thus hints like “square” or “circled” can influence the subjects’ perception on these patterns.


Figure 2. The subjects’ perception results on the 11 patterns under CFS. (A) Hit rate; (B) Detective sensitivity. Purple: hint is “circle”; Green: hit is “square”; Grey: no words hint. Image source: Lupyan G., Ward E. J. (2013). Language can boost otherwise unseen objects into visual awareness. PNAS.

“Language’s influence on visual perception is specific that it can precisely adjust visual system to make us more sensitive to related information.” Lupyan concluded:” Perhaps, it is this power that makes language a highly efficient tool to guide human’s behavior.”

Image source: Shutterstock